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Provincial authorities seize orphaned black bear from Cochrane Ecological Institute, permit revoked

"We have the best facilities for rearing bears in Alberta, we have the experience and we have the advisors, internationally recognized advisors and specialists.”

ROCKY VIEW— A three-month-old orphaned female black bear cub has been removed without warning from the Cochrane Ecological Institute by Alberta Environment and Parks.

The bear had called the Institute home for ten10 days before its sudden seizure by provincial authorities on June 1, said president Clio Smeeton. At the same time the animal was seized authorities cancelled the Institute's annual permit to rehabilitate orphaned bear cubs indefinitely.

The bear was then placed in the care of the Alberta Institute for Wildlife Conservation.

“I just don’t understand why, we’ve never had this type of thing,” Smeeton said.

The Cochrane Ecological Institute was founded in 1965 and obtained its first licence to operate in 1967. The licence allowed the Institute to accept all Indigenous species for rescue, rearing and release. 

They first began rehabilitating bears under permit in 1985. In 1993 it became a registered charity.

The seizure of the bear is the result of a series of alleged offences cited by Alberta Environment and Parks.

Smeeton said the Institute has never faced a situation like this and questioned the alleged offence of holding wildlife improperly.

Smeeton said three offences to the permit were cited by the Alberta Environment and Parks including how the bear was transported to the Institute, a delay in notifying the province the bear had been received at the facility and that the veterinarian who treated the bear cub had not been officially added to Cochrane Ecological Institute veterinary roster by Alberta Environment and Parks. 

The orphaned bear cub was first spotted by a hunter on May 17 near Kearl Lake. At the time the three-month-old cub was covered in bitumen and weighed 11 pounds. The hunter who found the cub estimates the animal had been on its own for four days before it was rescued, Smeeton said.

A staff member from the Institute drove more than 20 hours to pick up the cub. After picking up the bear the staff member stopped in Rocky Mountain House a 2 a.m. on May 19 on their way back to the Institute. At that time the staff member stopped to rest and the cub was kept in a crate.

The hunter who discovered the orphaned cub arrived in Rocky Mountain House and ended up driving the cub the rest of the way to the Cochrane Ecological Institute— Smeeton said this is the first “contravention” of the permit cited by Alberta Environment and Parks.

That same day the cub was transferred to the organization a Cochrane Ecological Institute vehicle was used to drive the bear to a vet in Airdrie for a check-up. Smeeton noted as part of the permit the Cochrane Ecological Institute is required to see a veterinarian within 48 hours of a bears arrival. The cub was anaesthetized during the vet visit to remove the bitumen, and blood and tissue samples required by Alberta Environment and Parks were also taken.

The cub arrived back at the Institute at 5:30 p.m. on the 19.

As part of the permit the Institute is required to notify Alberta Environment and Parks within 24 hours of a cub arriving at the facility, Smeeton said. She notified the Alberta Environment and Parks at 8:30 a.m. on June 21, resulting in a delay of approximately 15 hours past the 24-hour mark.

Smeeton said she believes removing the cub from a home where it was becoming comfortable is a disastrous result for the animal.

“There was no need to do what they did,” Smeeton said. “On her outlook on life and on her trust and everything like that it was a terrible thing to happen to her.”

In the 10 days, she spent at the Institute the cub gained 10 pounds and was beginning to grow comfortable at her new home.

She was placed in a nursery after her trip to the vet to ensure she was eating well and healthy. When she grew big enough the cub was moved out of the nursery and into a facility purposely built for orphan bear cubs at the Institute.

The facilities at the Cochrane Ecological Institute span 140 acres and are isolated, preventing human interactions with the wildlife. She noted the Institute is also closed to the public.

“We can give them a better life just because there’s more room, there are more trees,” Smeeton said. “They are not going to become habituated, which is one of the major concerns of AEP [Alberta Environment and Parks].”

The Cochrane Ecological institute was issued its wildlife rehabilitation permit on March 31. The permit is issued based upon approval of captive management protocol and the wildlife facilities at the Institute.

The facility boasts three approved bear enclosures measuring .5 of an acre, two acres and three acres.

The permit allows the Institute to accept up to five orphaned black bear cubs.

For now, Smeeton has been left questioning why the bear was taken by Alberta Environment and Parks and what will happen to the cub and future orphaned bear cubs moving forward.

The Cochrane Ecological Institute has been focussed on researching what happens to rehabilitated bears when they are rereleased, but this will take years of committed work.

They have a slew of experts they work with to better understand wildlife rehabilitation and take steps to ensure orphaned animals can thrive using a multidisciplinary approach.

The future of this research is now uncertain given the seizure of the bear cub and the suspension of their permit.

“I really would like the entire thing to be reinstated as it was prior to June 1,” Smeeton said. “We have the best facilities for rearing bears in Alberta, we have the experience and we have the advisors, internationally recognized advisors and specialists.”

Alberta Environment and Parks confirmed in an email statement to The Cochrane Eagle the Cochrane Ecological Institute had breached some of its permit conditions. It did not clarify what conditions had been violated.

The statement said the Alberta Government has permitted the rehabilitation and release of orphan black bear cubs since 2018 under strict protocols focussed on the safety of bears and humans. The statement alleges the Cochrane Ecological Institute has repeatedly advocated for outcomes or approaches contradicting science-based protocols, putting the safety of bears and the public at risk.

"Recent actions by Cochrane Ecological Institute that breached permit conditions have left Alberta Environment and Parks no choice but to remove Cochrane Ecological Institute's authorization to rehabilitate black bear cubs at their facility," said the statement. "Fish and Wildlife officers have moved the bear cub to another approved wildlife rehabilitation facility, where they will do everything, they can to ensure the bear does not become habituated to humans. Fish and Wildlife Enforcement Services is investigating how the bear ended up captured and brought to Cochrane Ecological Institute."

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Chelsea Kemp

About the Author: Chelsea Kemp

Chelsea Kemp joined the Cochrane Eagle in 2020 as editor, bringing with her experience as a reporter and photojournalist. She writes about politics, health care, arts and entertainment and Indigenous stories.
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